ROME: Coronavirus could not have hit Italy at a worse time as farm workers need to prepare fields for crops in the crucial economic sector, the country’s farmers and producers said on Thursday.
Italy added new restrictions on Wednesday to strict controls imposed on travel to fight Europe’s worst coronavirus outbreak, ordering bars and restaurants to close after the highest daily increase in deaths of any country since the outbreak began.
“It is the sowing season of spring crops, such as corn and sunflower, also important for summer fruit,” said Massimiliano Giansanti, president of Italian agricultural association Confagricoltura.
“There are many jobs in the fields and the blocks forcefully limit the actions of farmers.”
The lockdown could jeopardise processing and early harvests of fruits and vegetables because tens of thousands of seasonal workers from countries such as Romania and Albania are now blocked, said Coldiretti, Italy’s biggest farmer association.
With more than 800 deaths from the virus, Italians have been told to stay at home unless they have health, work or emergency needs for at least the next three weeks. All shops will be shuttered except supermarkets, food stores and chemists.
Italy has hundreds of thousands of farms and much of the manual work is done by immigrants, who do not live on the farms but travel between towns, often in groups, Riccardo Valentini, an agricultural expert, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“Farmers need people in the field … for putting fertiliser, pruning, weeding or harvesting some early crops – and that’s all becoming an issue with whether people can move,” said the professor at the University of Tuscia.
“It is really unfortunate because (the lockdown) is occurring at the same time where farming operations are starting after winter.”
The epidemic is the latest in a string of difficulties facing Italian farmers, agriculture experts said, after erratic weather in 2018 halved olive oil production and with US tariffs imposed on some Italian foods in 2019.
Italy’s agricultural production was worth nearly €56 billion euros in 2018 – about 4% of the economy – government data shows, with much of the produce being used to supply local supermarkets and restaurants and exported worldwide.
“The entire agri-food system is suffering at the moment,” said Felice Adinolfi, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of Bologna.
For now, the country’s food supplies from 740,000 farms, 70,000 processing companies and a widespread distribution network are assured, Coldiretti said, seeking to allay fears as shoppers rushed to stock up on food this week.
“We want … people to keep calm. Yes, this is a difficult moment but … there is no problem in the production and there is no transmission of the disease by food,” said Carmelo Troccoli, a director at Coldiretti.